What do you want to know about GE wheat?

This year and next, an important and interesting trial of genetically engineered wheat is underway. At the Rothamsted research station in the UK, they are testing the ability of this wheat to ward off aphids by emitting an odorless pheromone. If successful, it could mean that wheat farmers will have a non-insecticide option for prevent losses to this harmful herbivore. This field trial has gotten a lot of press and attention, and the UK’s chief scientific adviser called it amazing. However, a group calling themselves Take The Flour Back, is protesting the trial, and through their website are threatening to vandalize and remove the wheat plants before they flower. (No April Fools, folks.)

Well you are in for a treat! We have arranged an interview with Gia Aradottir, who is a biologist involved in the project. Here is a story that focused on her work. Is there anything you want to know about this GE wheat experiment? Do you have any questions for Gia about how this wheat works, or what she will be doing to evaluate it in the field? What about the public response? What do YOU want to know about GE wheat?

Put your questions in the comments, and we may have an answer for you in the next week or two!

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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21 comments to What do you want to know about GE wheat?

  • Ah yes the wheat trial! As a bioscience student in the UK I was very excited when I heard about this – finally the UK might be starting to allow some scientific progress in agriculture… I have also seen the Take Back the Flour campaign (who are claiming some very odd things about this trial). I just want to know whether they are confident in protecting their work from the protesters?

  • George Janes

    I am a plant science student in the UK and I am extremely excited about seeing how these trials go, as well as the benefits it may offer to UK agriculture (seeing as we’re big on wheat, something like this could give us a well needed step-up into biotech applications). I do have one question, which I know has been raised before by people wary of the technology; I am wondering what the variety’s developers feel about the potential for aphids to evolve insensitivity to the repellent effects of beta-farnesene. Personally, I do not imagine that this would be likely to occur as I suspect that the benefit to aphids losing this sensitivity would confer little benefit, especially since any population which evolves resistance and feasts on the crop would be seen to by parasitic wasps attracted by the scent. I would have thought there would be no pressure for wasps to lose their sensitivity in this light!

  • For what reason is that protest for?

  • Interesting. The article says:

    Many plants, including the peppermint plant, release a smell to warn off dangerous aphids, also known as greenfly or blackfly.

    Scientists have therefore taken a gene from the peppermint plant and added it to wheat, which is usually odourless, so that it too will release the warning scent.

    Dr Aradottir said: “We aim to help plants protect themselves against insects.

    “We want to protect the wheat from being infected with disease in the first place.

    “A lot of people don’t like insecticide or pesticide so this might be an alternative.”

    Maybe this is only applicable to the US, but here is the definition of pesticide:

    “A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest.

    Though often misunderstood to refer only to insecticides, the term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, and various other substances used to control pests.”

    About Pesticides.

    Therefore, the wheat plant is modified to include a pesticide. Why be coy about it? It’s a pesticide. Pesticides are our friends (when used properly).

    • Agreed, but it will depend on who you ask. The definition you give is a broad interpretation consistent with US government agencies such as the EPA, USDA, and NIH (and repeated on Wiki). Strictly defined by Websters or Britannica (seems appropriate here :-), it is, as implied by the “cide” suffix, “a chemical that is used to kill animals or insects that damage plants or crops”.

      Does the UK follow similar definitions as the US and how does that affect regulation there? Substance is pretty loosely defined. Are plant parts considered a substance? Would a variety that is covered in spiny trichomes that impale or hinder soft-bodied aphids, for example, be considered as pesticidal?

  • I keep hearing about the “cow” thing (and I sorta think that cow bread is cute, and would make nice roast beef sandwiches, maybe with a little cheese sauce for additional cow proteins…). I actually don’t have a problem with cow genes or eating cow genes. Yet I also hear it’s not a cow gene. Is the sequence available for me to have a look at this gene?

    • Jonathan

      As I understand it the transgene is from peppermint but is driven by a synthetic promoter whose design is “closer” to one from cow than your usual plant promoter (I’m not sure of the reason behind this). In other words its not from cow or anything else for that matter. This is what the protesters have got their knickers in a twist about. It gives them a nice opportunity to photoshop some cow heads onto pictures of wheat though in their never-ending quest to misrepresent what is actually going on.

      Reading the discussion boards around the internet on this story you find that the arguments turn into anti-capitalist or religious “STOP PLAYING GOD”-type posts within about 2 exchanges.

      I wonder if 8000 years ago groups of middle-class art, theology and philosophy students went round tearing up the original 3 way cross that made today’s wheat?

      • Ewan R

        There appear to be 2 genes, one which is closest to peppermint, one closest to the cow gene – by sequence homology I guess – I assume rather than clone them they just had the sequence custom built (I don’t quite get why you’d lump for a gene with closest homology to mammalian sequence rather than plant or some bacterial sequence – if the proteins are as ubiquitous as they state it should be possible to grab a working version from elsewhere (you’d assume bacterial versions would be devoid of post translational regulation in plants, which is one of the reasons you might opt to go for something non-plant) – you’d also think that the sequence for the cow gene might have odd codon useage for a plant gene (I can’t remember now if either dicots or monocots have similar codon useage to mammals (if I ever knew… not sure I did) but I know they have pretty dissimilar useage between them so if synthesizing a gene its odd you wouldn’t land near to wheat)

        To summarize the above word salad… it’d be nice to know, from a purely scientific perspective, why the sequences they used are the sequences they used – it doesn’t particularly matter in terms of safety or ick factor, but just for the sake of interest.

        Could be something as assinine as intellectual property I guess.

        • Jonathan

          I’ve looked into this a bit more and it seems the coding part of the gene is from peppermint and the promoter is synthetic but closer to a mammalian promoter than a plant one so that its functionality isn’t as likely to be affected by everyday metabolism of the host plant.

          Whether such a move makes the promoter more likely to be shut down by targetted methylation remains to be seen I guess.

          Jonathan

  • I know there are already plants which are capable of repelling pests. You can know more about them here: Pest Repellent Plants

    I think it is a good idea to have a pest repellent wheat. But mostly I am concerned about the quality of wheat which will be produced. Will it alter the taste? The texture? How about the side effects after consumption? Is it really safe to eat this genetically modified wheat?

    And another thing I want to ask is, can we do this on all of the crops that we need protecting?

    Thanks!

  • I’m extremely excited about this particular GE application. As an ethical vegan this is exactly the kind of improved trait that comes to mind when thinking about how GE tech can help humanity and animals. I like the idea of warding off a pest (or interrupt it reproductive cycle) far more than the not-so-quick death from many pesticides. Its sad that such an obviously positive trait is being opposed so vociferously and with threats of destruction.

  • Jeroen

    Will there be a counter protest in favor of the field trial?
    In Wetteren, Belgium some people tried to destroy a blight resistant potato field trial last year, but did not totally succeed. A counter protest with 350 scientists and other people was organized. This made a big difference in public perception and media coverage.

  • Eric Baumholer

    The activists will want to know if the pheromones have a mode of action in the human body similar to chemical substances which act as ‘estrogen mimics’, and potentially might cause unknown side-effects.

  • Hey guys- a petition is being held to show support for the GM wheat trials at Rothamsted and resistance against opposition. Just in case anyone wants to sign: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/petition.php?page=8

    • Thanks George–I have signed. But I was way back at number 60 something, and there are hundreds now! Very cool to see that support come along.

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen plant scientists come out so actively to try to talk to protesters, with press and videos. I’m really impressed.

      And I think the destruction (if it does happen) may actually be much worse for the protesters than they realize. I’m seeing the science community and supporters of science looking very solid and vocal on this, and that’s very encouraging too.

      • I know it’s great- all this has caused a real uproar in the scientific community; I guess this time the anti-GM lobby have really taken the biscuit! Most of the publicity in the UK (as I’m sure you’ve seen) is looking very positive so far. I’m guessing no-one can distrust the guys at Rothamsted- I’ve actually had a lecture from Tony Bruce about push-pull in Africa before and he’s a really nice guy! No one can say these guys don’t care about the environment or world hunger.
        Just keeping an eye on the petition it goes up by about 5 every minutes! It’s currently on 1422- very encouraging!

  • There is a danger in the precedent of validating the necessity of science through approval panels that are violent mobs. I’m afraid that this will succeed, the experiment will be trashed, and the future work will require corporate partnership, high security and increased costs. Also, it will be a tremendous black eye for the environmental movement.

    If they have hard evidence that the trials a threat, change the laws and regulations. Show a need for bigger buffer zones, etc.

    Let science prevail.

  • [...] Application: part A & part B ACRE’s advice for Rothamsted Research’s GM wheat What do you want to know about GE wheat? by Karl Haro von Mogel You’re eating viral DNA? by Karl Haro von Mogel Animal DNA in My Tomato??? [...]

  • [...] Application: part A & part B ACRE’s advice for Rothamsted Research’s GM wheat What do you want to know about GE wheat? by Karl Haro von Mogel You’re eating viral DNA? by Karl Haro von Mogel Animal DNA in My Tomato??? [...]

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